Locator Spotlight: The Lifecycle of a Locate Request
What happens to your locate request in the three working days after it’s submitted? Many contractors don’t realize how many things go into getting your job marked so it’s ready for you to begin excavation when your ticket becomes valid. Here is a glimpse at the life of a ticket through the eyes of a utility locator.
You’ve submitted your ticket to the One Call center and have been informed the utilities have 72 hours (excluding weekends and holidays) to respond. How many tickets are called in on average? TN811 received an average of nearly 2,500 locate requests per day across the state in 2019.
The first step in getting the ticket processed is for the One Call center to transmit all ticket information provided to the different utilities who may have facilities in conflict with the dig area. An average of 5.33 utilities were notified for each incoming locate request in 2019.
At this point, your ticket will go one of two ways. If the utility receiving your ticket information does their utility locates “in house,” meaning an employee of that utility performs the locate, your ticket is distributed to the locator and falls into their workflow to complete. If the utility receiving your locate request uses a subcontractor to perform their locates, your ticket is routed to the contract locating company. It always helps to know if the utilities were marked by the utility or a subcontractor, so you know who to contact if you have questions about the markings.
Once your ticket is in the hands of the locator, specifically a contract locator, the next step starts. Most utility locate companies use a ticket management software which allows tickets to be routed to varying grids; each grid has a specific locate technician assigned and responsible for the area. The territory could encompass an area anywhere from a couple of grids, if the service area and ticket volume is low, to hundreds of grids for larger service areas and higher ticket volumes.
Once the locator has received his workload for the day he must make a game plan to get the tickets completed by their due date. For a contract locator, the first 24 hours of a locate ticket’s life is often spent in the internal routing phase, meaning by the time the locator receives the ticket in their workflow they only have 48 hours to get it done. On any given day, utility locators could have between 10 and 50 tickets in their workflow depending on the workload for their specific territory.
The next step to maximize efficiency is to eliminate as much drive time between locates as possible. The less windshield time, the more time spent in the field marking utilities. A commonly used approach involves routing yourself in a circle so you end back near where you started. The starting point may be the locator’s office, home, or first ticket of the day.
Locators must consider the type of tickets in their workload and the size and location of the projects. This is important as they may have tickets in their workload that require traffic control, are in areas accessible only during certain hours, or they may have to hold off based on weather conditions as some hard surfaces won’t allow the paint to stick if wet.
Now that the tickets are routed and we have a game plan for the day, we head to the location of the first ticket. Let’s go with a single address ticket to get into the swing of our workday. As the locator pulls up to the first ticket, they are visually scanning the area for signs of buried utilities. The locator will look over the ticket to ensure a clear understanding of the scope of the ticket and where digging will take place, looking at their prints for existing utilities and forming a plan of attack to get these utilities marked.
In a perfect world, the locator will be able to walk up to the job site, know exactly where the hook up point is for each utility that needs to be marked and complete the locate with minimal issues. Unfortunately, this is not always the case; access points can be buried, hidden behind brush and debris, or difficult to reach because of a structure placed around access points by a home owner to give better curb appeal to their property (think shrubs or fences around utility boxes). Fences with locked gates can be a huge hindrance to utility locators. If a locator runs into this issue and the property owner is not on site, the locator can’t complete the locate and needs to make phone calls to the contact on the ticket to make arrangements to gain access. This may mean that the locator now has to put this ticket on hold and move on to another ticket while these arrangements are being made.
Once the locator verifies where he needs to hook up to mark out the utility, the line can be located. Sounds easy enough, right? Well even though he knows where he needs to access the utility and where the line is supposed to run, he still must utilize his locate equipment to ensure he is staying on the target utility throughout the locate. Many factors can make a seemingly easy locate difficult to complete. A utility may not be grounded on the far end, making it difficult to complete the circuit. Shallow utilities can cause the return signal to bleed off and follow a different line, making it difficult to differentiate between the two signals. Nicks or breaks in the line can also cause a loss of signal and possibly cause bleed off onto other utilities in a congested area.
Now let’s head to our next ticket, where we’re marking at an intersection. Often, the easiest and most straightforward way for a contractor to call in a ticket at an intersection is to request a radius of the intersection to be marked. While this may seem simple enough to the caller, let’s look at how this affects the locator. Once again, the locator is going to visually scan the area to look for signs of buried utilities, however this time the ticket calls for a 500-foot radius of an intersection. The locator is now going to have to go 500 feet in every direction of that intersection as well as possibly behind businesses and residences that sit at the corner of the intersection. Once the locator has determined what utilities need to be marked and has checked the utility prints for known existing utilities and access points, she will make her plan of attack for marking the utilities. The difference here from our previous example is that we now may have access points in the street at the intersection which causes the locator to have to close traffic lanes down to access these hookup points.
The locator also must be aware of her surroundings as vehicles driving by may not understand that the locator may be stepping out into the street to mark a utility. If it is a heavily travelled road, the locator may have to rely on the timing of traffic lights to gain access to the roadways to mark lines that are crossing the intersection. Unfortunately for the locators, it is not always possible to just close the roadway down to complete their locate. Locating in intersections can be a very time consuming and dangerous job for a locator. The same variables that may cause issues in locating a line at the previous single address ticket are in play for this intersection ticket. Bleed off, grounding issues, and other variables need to be taken into consideration when completing any locate. Depending on how many utilities are being marked, how heavily travelled the road is, and how many different access points need to be used to complete the locate, this locate could take a considerable amount of time, sometimes more than an hour. This is something to keep in mind, remembering what the locator’s workload looked like at the beginning of the day.
Uh oh! What just popped up on the locator’s computer? It’s an emergency ticket. In Tennessee, the locator has two hours to respond to an immediate emergency ticket from the time the ticket was received by the One Call center. The locator now must decide: Do I have time to complete the rest of this lengthy locate and still have time to travel to the location of the emergency and complete that locate, or do I need to pack up my things and return to this locate after I’ve handled the emergency? Let’s say the locator decides he won’t be able to complete the current locate quickly enough to still have the emergency handled in time. That being the case, the locator must now put the current ticket on hold until the emergency is taken care of.
Fast forward through the emergency ticket, everything went smoothly and the locator was able to complete the locate on time. Now getting back in their truck, the locator must decide: Do I return to the locate I just came from when the emergency came in, or do I reroute myself from where I am now and catch the rest of that locate later on my way back? In this scenario, the locator determines that he has some smaller tickets close by to the emergency that he can go complete and reroutes his workload.
The last step in completing any locate request is documenting the work performed and sending a positive response notification back to the One Call center that allows the caller to see the status of their ticket as well as how it was closed out. This can include making drawings, taking pictures, and placing notes on the ticket. The locator has a large responsibility on each ticket completed and must have good documentation showing what work was performed and how the utilities were marked when he left the jobsite.
If you’re following along, we’ve had a very busy day and we’ve only managed to complete one ticket. We’ve thrown several variables into our scenario to illustrate the challenges locators have to overcome on a daily basis, and this is not an unrealistic example. Now consider that everything we’ve managed to overcome in this example is repeated 10, 20, or 30 times every day as the locator works to complete two or three locates per hour.
Utility locators, thank you for what you do each day to keep our contractors, homeowners, and communities safe while protecting the vital assets that most people never even see in their daily life. Your dedication and commitment to damage prevention is an important part of the safe digging process.
Jason Kouba is a Damage Prevention Liaison with TN811. Want to recognize a utility locator for their hard work? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and they may be featured in an upcoming issue of dp-PRO.
Editor’s Note: Ticket requirements referred to in this article are specific to the Tennessee Dig Law. Please visit ExcavationSafetyGuide.com or your state’s One Call website for information specific to your state’s Dig Law.